Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bacteria in a petri dish

The recent (excellent) Green Energy Symposium put together by the Sustainable and Renewable Energy Engineering Society of Carleton University got me wondering about the issue of sustainability. Everyone has heard this buzz word by now. Sustainable energy is generally being taken to mean an environmentally benign renewable energy source capable of satisfying energy demands of the entire world population now and in the future. If you have ever been to any green energy talks you have certainly seen the graph of standard of living vs energy consumption

and the increase in energy consumption worldwide over the the past couple of centuries

Both undoubtedly seem to imply that to live well more energy is needed. Here is where the awful truth comes out that we don't really have a large enough supply of the conventional energy sources left to sustain our standard of living much longer and especially to improve it in the developing countries. And the general theme of any such green talk will surely be that of tightening our energy belts and thinking hard about alternative energy sources like wind and solar. Though the is no simple answer, if we conserve energy and learn to rely on solar power we are sure to arrive at a sustainable solution, right?

(The theme of energy conservation always revolves around the need for us to change our mentality and behaviour when it comes to energy use. We have to change the way we think! Communism tried and failed at restructuring the human mind, so why should the sustainable movement succeed?)

Certainly there is some room for power usage improvement, but is Iceland really that energy-greedy or is it just cold? And have we really been getting increasingly power-hungry since the industrial revolution or are there simply more of us now? For some reason no one seems to ever show the population growth data to go with the energy consumption graph. And the world population exploded after world war II just as the power consumption did. Could there be a connection?

People have certainly gotten crafty at exploiting the Earth to the max, making the most of the available resources such that an ever increasing population can be sustained. Thus if we include solar and wind and biomass into our energy arsenal we are bound to push the envelope even further. But when the population doubles again will that be enough? Ultimately, we are not that different from bacteria in a petri dish. No matter how far we can push our resource envelope, we will eventually hit the resource ceiling and the population will level off in the stationary phase where the birth rate equals the death rate.

So perhaps it's not our resource management that's not sustainable. Perhaps it our population growth?